Treading More Lightly Capturing the Sun in the Mojave Desert

As I walk into a clearing between hundred-foot-tall palm trees, I see a towering array of photovoltaic panels tilted en masse toward the sun. Park management company Xanterra has installed this impressive solar phalanx, smack-dab in the middle of its private “inholding” at Furnace Creek within southeastern California’s Death Valley National Park. This stretch of the Mojave Desert is a prime spot for solar panels. And Xanterra, which runs the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort here, has begun to capitalize on the location’s abundant free energy. Death Valley is one of the sunniest spots on Earth, clocking some 360 days of sunshine a year.

Xanterra’s one megawatt solar installation at Furnace Creek—the largest solar facility in the tourism industry—is spread across a four-acre rectangle. According to Joel Southall, Xanterra’s director of Environmental Health & Safety at Furnace Creek, the clean power created by the 5,740 solar panels over the next three decades will eliminate upwards of 29,000 tons of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide—equivalent to taking 5,100 cars off the road.

“When this facility went online last June, greenhouse gas emissions company-wide immediately decreased by 4%,” says Southall.

Furnace Creek Inn is surrounded by 3.4 million acres of pristine desert wilderness: The resort is literally an oasis for nature lovers. And while the striated cliffs of Zabriskie Point, the briny reflection pools of Badwater and the ever-shifting sand dunes of Mesquite Flats beckon, I sit on the patio and have another organic lemonade before venturing out into the hot and sandy wilds just beyond the gate.

Reuse and Retreat

Roddy Scheer
Joel Southall of Xanterra shows off the solar array. Credit: Roddy Scheer

Just 200 miles south of Death Valley on the other end of the Mojave Desert is another ecotourism hotspot of the Southwest, Joshua Tree National Park. The huge, rounded boulders (“God’s marbles”), darting desert wildlife like roadrunners and chuckwalla lizards, watercolor washes of wildflowers, cacti and spindly Joshua trees draw a striking landscape. Just beyond the national park’s border, an odd assortment of desert shacks have been repurposed as vacation rentals by Los Angeles-based landscape architect Greg Davis. With an emphasis on outdoor living—hammocks, chimeneas and sprawling cactus-adorned patios—these formerly private homes make for funky and enchanting desert getaways. Initially Davis bought one of them for his own use as a family escape, and loved it so much he bought 12 others, all of which he now rents out for short stays as part of Joshua Desert Retreats.

While the homes—most of them built decades ago—aren’t models of efficiency, Davis points to them as great examples of reuse. “I like to think that the houses sit lightly on the land,” says Davis. “Recycling an existing structure by simply remodeling and updating means that we haven’t taken away existing natural desert land.” None of the properties have paved driveways or water-hungry lawns, and native plantings obviate the need for supplemental irrigation.

Adds Davis, “Watching the roadrunner jump down from her nest at sunrise, spending evenings under the Milky Way in front of the outdoor fireplace as the coyotes yip in the wash; now that is the intimate experience that raises our awareness to this living ecosystem we call “the desert”.”